Displaced children navigate COVID-19 in camps in north-east Nigeria

In north-east Nigeria, an estimated 1.9 million people are displaced – and about 60 per cent of them are children; many under the age of five

Geoffrey Njoku, Communications Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria
A girl washing her hands
UNICEF Nigeria
23 July 2020

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought with it a new reality of social distancing, a greater focus on hygiene, and a general disruption of normal life. This is a difficult adjustment for anyone, but what if you’re living in an internally displaced person’s (IDP) camp, where crowds are the norm and proper hygiene takes extra effort?

Seven-year-old Fatima Auwali has spent most of her young life as a displaced person, existing within the routine of the Madinatu camp in Borno State, where she’s lived with her family since fleeing Boko Haram five years ago.

As someone who has grown up in a camp, a contained life separate from the outside world is normal for Fatima. She exists in its confined spaces, waking up every day right next to her parents and siblings. 

But with the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, her world has been thrown into disarray. She faces a new normal - unable to go out and play freely with her friends. Schools are closed and she and other children question why they must deal with strange rules that make life confusing.

“We now wash our hands more frequently - even when it is not time to eat food,” she said.

In north-east Nigeria, an estimated 1.9 million people are displaced – and about 60 per cent of them are children; many under the age of five. Globally, an estimated 19 million children are displaced due to ongoing conflict and violence over the past decade.

IDP camps are crowded, with little room for social distancing. Parents struggle to maintain or observe proper hygiene practices, such a helping a child to wash their hands after a day of playing with friends.

Like many adults in the camp, Fatima’s mother, Zarau, is skeptical about the very existence of COVID-19. The 34-year-old mother of five knows little about the disease. Indeed, it was 7-year-old Fatima who seemed better informed.

Asked why people put on face masks, Fatima, who was playing on her father's parked bicycle, shouted: “It is because of coronavirus.”

Since the outbreak, humanitarian officials, led by UNICEF, have become more visible in the camps, raising awareness about the pandemic and what safety measures must be taken to avoid contracting or spreading the virus.

The Borno State Government, working together with other aid agencies, has imposed restrictions on movements within and around camps and has provided additional handwashing points at strategic locations in the camp and messaging about best practices.

UNICEF Nigeria, with funding from the Netherlands government, is supporting the Borno State Government to promote good hygiene in communities. Key hygiene practices, including handwashing with soap, helps to curb the spread of the coronavirus particularly among vulnerable populations.

Kabuka Banda, UNICEF project manager for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Maiduguri, said UNICEF and its partners have so far been able to encourage a culture of safe practices and social distancing measures that has led to a change in behaviour.

“Hygiene promoters based in the camps have received training on how to spread important hygiene messages to people living in congested environments, like camps for displaced people,” he said.

UNICEF has distributed 396 pamphlets and posters and has produced radio jingles on COVID-19 awareness and prevention in the local Hausa and Kanuri languages, for those who prefer to get their information through radio. 

UNICEF and WASH partners have also ensured water supplied to IDP communities is chlorinated to keep it safe, says Banda, and in one week had treated about 5 million litres of water from 113 different sources. UNICEF has also supplied soap and is distributing reusable face masks.


Worry for the IDPs

But there are still concerns over community transmission in the camps and constant communication is necessary so that the communities do not let down their guard against the virus.

“COVID-19 is a new phenomenon for everyone. We are seeing a pattern of positive cases that indicates community transmission is taking place,” said Banda.  

Ultimately, mass testing will be needed to get a handle on the true spread of the disease.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge is that many people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and may not fall ill, yet they can transmit the disease to other people,” he said. “So mass testing could show the extent of the spread of the virus – and encourage people to be even more careful.”

In the meantime, IDP communities are listening to hygiene messages and taking precautions, and children like Fatima hope that they’ll be able to navigate through the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.